Raptors' depth impresses again, giving Nurse a potential 'bench mob' option

Fred VanVleet posted a game-high 23 points as the Toronto Raptors defeat the Charlotte Hornets 112-109 in NBA preseason action.

Let’s do the math here: The Toronto Raptors and Charlotte Hornets combined for 57 fouls, 47 turnovers and nearly 150 minutes of pre-season basketball, with 34 different players seeing the floor.

It was not "art," as the gone-but-not forgotten Serge Ibaka might say, but it was a game and the Raptors won 112-109 to improve to 2-0 in exhibition play – both wins in Charlotte against the Hornets.

The Raptors' final exhibition game is Friday in Tampa against the Miami Heat before starting off the regular season Dec.23 against the San Antonio Spurs. That’s all to look forward to, but for now, we have takeaways:

1. Will this season see the return of a "bench mob" for Toronto?

If you are a projected non-starter with the Raptors, this could be the season for you, in a throwback kind of way.

Three seasons ago, then-Raptors assistant coach Nick Nurse would keep the second and third unit for what was effectively a second practice after Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Ibaka and the veterans were showered and on their way home from the first practice. It proved a pivotal moment for the franchise as then-head coach Dwane Casey used Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet as the foundation pieces of what became known as the "bench mob" – an up-tempo group that ran opposition’s second units off the floor and was a huge factor in the Raptors' team-record 59-win season.

That formula went out the window in 2018-19 when Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol joined the club and the rotation became more top heavy, although those shiny rings seem to suggest that worked out well. Last season, injuries made settling on a steady rotation impossible. But with a deep bench, a compressed 72-game season, a short training camp and a brief off-season, Nurse has signalled he’s open to going back to a somewhat set second unit.

“I think you're into kind of a loading conditioning thing where you're not gonna go too far with too many guys quite yet,” he said, explaining why he didn’t plan to lean too heavily on his starters over the course of three exhibition games or even beyond. “I would say that this is probably gonna lean towards a little bit deeper rotations to start the year. I just don't see going out there in Game 1 and pushing anybody way up in minutes right away. I guess that is a shift in thought process, but that's just what we're under.”

It doesn’t hurt that this Raptors team is shaping up as exceptionally deep. Even with Lowry staying home in Tampa and Patrick McCaw ramping up slowly after off-season knee surgery, it seemed like there was always another body Nurse could turn to. The challenge for him will be figuring out who among a wide swath of choices he will slot into regular roles beyond the fairly obvious top six or seven rotation players. That said, guys have to perform.

“It’s always good to have competition, I think,” he said. “Again, you’ve been hearing me talk for a couple of days about wanting to try to find some guys you can kind of count on each night but I didn’t quite feel that from Matt [Thomas] and Chris [Boucher] and Terence [Davis] in the first half, they didn’t have very good stints."

Nurse has opened the door for steady roles off the bench, but he’s not giving those minutes away.

2. Flynn looks like a lock to become regular-season contributor

Staying with that theme, rookie Malachi Flynn (17 points on 12 shots) impressed again and is looking like a lock to gain steady minutes as the point guard for the second unit and, who knows, maybe slide up the lineup to play alongside VanVleet and Lowry in small-ball groups.

For the second straight game, the Raptors' play perked up when he took control of the offence. In short order in the second quarter he hustled back to disrupt an otherwise wide-open Charlotte triple in transition; tossed a perfect lob to a cutting OG Anunoby for a dunk; knocked down a wide-open three; and blew past the entire Hornets roster for a lay-up.

What will be interesting is who might get the other wing minutes.

Davis would have been presumed to have a leg-up there, but he looked just okay in the first pre-season game and was downright shaky on Monday night with a couple of quick turnovers and a hurriedness to his game early on. Thomas was brilliant in the first game but a non-factor (1-of-5) in the second. But also looking for minutes will be DeAndre' Bembry and Paul Watson, while Norm Powell will get minutes with that group, too. It’s going to get crowded and likely very competitive.

Davis (14 points, three assists) found his legs in the second half, flashing the elite athletic burst that sets him apart while making some nice passes for his teammates and stepping into shots with some confidence and showing some chemistry with Flynn. Meanwhile Bembry showed great promise as an active cutter and high energy defender. Nurse will be spoiled for choice.

3. Opportunity is there for Boucher – he just has to seize it

Upfront it will likely be Chris Boucher’s opportunity to lose. The Montreal native was rewarded with a two-year $13.5-million deal in the off-season (with no guarantee on the second year, however) and will be expected to play as an up-tempo five with a unit that will likely play small and very fast.

“I feel like we’re younger, we can play fast. Even during training camp you could see that we’re trying to play fast," he said. "Even though we’re learning, the ball moves around, we’ve got good shooters -- Matt, TD, Malachi.

"It’s really a great group of guys that want to work hard and the pace is different and it gives you a different dynamic than with the starters. I think, for us, it’s just a matter of keeping the lead or increasing the lead and just play hard. I think in basketball most of the time when you come off the bench that’s what you’re supposed to do: Bring energy and play hard and I think we’ve got a good group of guys that can do that.”

One challenge for Boucher will be staying on the floor. He’s been an eager foul-giver through his first two seasons in Toronto – averaging 5.3 per 36 minutes. He picked up three quick ones in 14 minutes and was scoreless with two turnovers – although he did nab eight rebounds. The hope is Boucher will be more than just an energy player with a steady role.

“I think it's my third year here, so you can see that a lot of things are coming naturally. Knowing the plays. Knowing the sets. What we're doing on defence. You kind of become like a leader off the bench,” Boucher said before the game. “It helps a lot. I think, you know, trying to keep building on the last two years. I think I've gotten better every year. And the front office gave me a contract, and they believe in me. It definitely helps with my confidence, and it also makes me want to do more just to show that it wasn't a lost cause.”

4. So far, Bembry is living up to his reputation

If there was one Raptor who did himself a favour on Monday night it was Bembry, who arrived as a free agent from Atlanta with a reputation as a versatile defender with some ball skills and showed in a number of configurations that he is determined to carve out a role.

The Raptors were +17 in his 16 minutes, as he seemed to be in the right place at the right time to keep plays moving on offence or snuff them out on defence.

“He was great man; he was great. He was kind of in the Pat McCaw role today,” said VanVleet, who was brilliant in putting up 23 points in 22 minutes on 9-of-12 shooting, with four assists and three steals. “Just taking the pressure off. Those guys were picking up full court, and he was a scorer in college. I remember him coming out same [draft] class and DeAndre has some great ball skills -- he can put on the floor, he can shoot. And he can play make and so there's a rhythm, I think. I've been studying his game, I think he knows my game. And so we just had a natural rhythm out there, and I was able to find him and he found me.

"But just having an extra guy on there who can bring it up and initiate the offence and get us off the ball sometimes is great, alongside his defensive pressure. His length, his rebounding. I thought he was really, really, really, good tonight, and hopefully you know we can build on that going forward."

Bembry is eager to keep it rolling: “I’ve always brought the edge to the game and just a hunger. I think that’s the start of it,” he said. “And then I can guard one through three, I can play one through three, I can get in the paint, make some plays in the paint. Obviously, still get better shooting, I can shoot some threes sometimes as well. So I’m just all over the place and I think these guys just enjoy me flying around like that and I think it just helps us.”

5. Ball still has question marks around him, but his game-changing passing is undeniable

Flynn hasn’t been the only impressive rookie point guard on the floor in Charlotte.

The Hornets drafted LaMelo Ball third overall and are hoping the rail-thin six-foot-eight, 19-year-old can eventually provide one of the NBA’s blandest franchises with an identity beyond Michael Jordan’s less-than-stellar track record as an owner.

Based on early returns, it might not take all that long. There will be question marks about his shooting and if his up-bringing as an Insta-famous youngest brother of one of basketball’s most unconventional families will somehow impede his professional progress, but there is no question of one thing: the kid can absolutely pass the ball and plays with a kind of fluid ease that just flows into everyone on the floor with him.

“My first impressions were he's pretty good, right?” Nurse said, offering his scouting report. “He's certainly got a feel for the game and a unique passing element to his game that forces transition. He really zips it up ahead, even when there's not something there, a lot of the times, it's going ahead because that's kind of his mentality. That puts your defence under a little duress getting back.”

He seemed to get the ball in position for his teammates to score every time he touched it and that he only had two assists in 20 minutes might reflect more on the Hornets than him. It seems only a matter of time before he ends up starting and squeezing whatever juice there might be out of a pretty dry team.

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